NOJHL news and views

September 7, 2023

Tried. Tested. True. Twelve teams strong. Following is a seasoned writer’s selection of just some of what to consider, contemplate and envisage over the course of the 2023-2024 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League season.

• Our projections for ’23-24 are for the NOJHL to again feature close races atop both divisions and equal balance among the secondary tier teams. Look for a West Division pennant race between the Sudbury Cubs and Soo Thunderbirds. And as for playoff positions three and four, it could and should be a season long skirmish between the Blind River Beavers, Espanola Paper Kings, Soo Eagles and Elliot Lake Vikings. Over to the East Division, it is the big three of the Timmins Rock, Hearst Lumberjacks and Powassan Voodoos that will likely separate themselves from the French River Rapids, Iroquois Falls Storm and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners trio.

Noah Metivier

• Sudbury seems set up with the best goaltending tandem in the league with seasoned stoppers Noah Beaulne and Noah Metivier. That is a duo that, barring a trade, could well spell the difference between the Cubs not only winning the West but avoiding a playoff upset and making it to the league championship series against either Timmins, Hearst or Powassan. Of note, Metivier won an NOJHL championship two years ago while playing in the Soo for the Thunderbirds.

• The West was clearly the better division in ’22-23. Elliot Lake finished sixth — which is last place — in the West with 43 points while French River took the fourth and final playoff spot in the East with a mere 21 points. While that does not seem fair — indeed there are those who feel that the top eight teams should make the playoffs regardless of division — the folks who make decisions of this sort seem content to maintain status quo.

• Fans in Iroquois Falls and Elliot Lake are already big winners. Formerly known as the Abitibi Eskimos for a number of years as one of the best supported teams in the NOJHL, Iroquois Falls nonetheless first lost its NOJHL team back in 2015 when the local operator at that time turned his back on the faithful fans and scooted out of town. But the NOJHL is back in Iroquois Falls and not only the fans but the family ownership duo of Tom and Gina Nickolau stand to benefit from the new beginning. Meanwhile, over in Elliot Lake there is similar exhilaration and elation following two years of out of town ownership. Local lad Jef Jarmovitch not only took over operation of the franchise during the off season but changed the team name from the Red Wings to the Vikings. The takeover by Jarmovitch was quickly embraced by fans and supporters who, for one reason or another, had lost faith and trust in the previous owner. Junior hockey made its debut in Elliot Lake way back in 1965 and from then until 1997, the team was known as the Vikings. More than 25 years later, thanks to Jarmovitch and his people, the good ship Viking has again set sail. And even if there are tranquil waters ahead, the off season change in ownership has a chance to become the best thing that has happened to junior hockey in Elliot Lake in a long, long time.

• Can Elliot Lake make the playoffs in what is poised to again be a Wild West? It may be a stretch. The Vikings will need better than average goaltending from any combination of the three that are currently on their roster. And that is just for starters. While there are some good skaters in place on the forward and defense lines, head coach/general manager Chris Keleher may need to upgrade the Vikings roster as the season goes on.

Kevin Walker

• On the flip side, it looks as though it will be easier for the new kids in Iroquois Falls to make the playoffs on the East ice than it will for Elliot Lake to be top four in the West end. And part of what could be a feel good story in Iroquois Falls is that former Abitibi Eskimos captain Kevin Walker is back in town as the head coach of the Storm of Iroquois Falls. Walker, as a player, was one of the most popular players in the history of the erstwhile Eskimos and he returns to Iroquois Falls and the NOJHL having gained head coach experience with both the Timmins Majors of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League and the Red Lake Miners of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.

•  Soo Thunderbirds have been a steady, dependable, true to type franchise ever since founder Sam Biasucci and partners brought the team into NOJHL existence back in 1999. It doesn’t seem to matter who owns the Thunderbirds or who their coaches are. Since coming into the NOJHL as an expansion team 24 years ago, the Thunderbirds have had six different ownership groups — and, remarkably, have never experienced a season with a losing record. As far as head coaches, the Thunderbirds have done rather well with the likes of Bart Jarrett, Jim Capy, Toots Kovacs, Patrick Carricato, Sean Gagnon, Preston Mizzi, Jordan Smith, John Parco, Denny Lambert and current bench boss Cole Jarrett at the helm. All in all, the Thunderbirds have five league championships to their credit, having hoisted banners in 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2022. Ergo, there is no reason to think that the Thunderbirds will not be among the NOJHL elite again this season.

• Soo Eagles missed the playoffs in ’22-23 for the first time in 10 years while under the operation of president and general manager Bruno Bragagnolo. Thus, the hard boiled, old school Bragagnolo is determined to not let that happen again. Behind the bench, the Eagles are in capable hands with veteran head coach Doug Laprade back for another season and former National Hockey League enforcer Ken Belanger on the coaching staff. And Bragagnolo also lends his coaching expertise from decades and decades and decades and decades in the game. Don’t count out the Eagles from returning to the playoffs in ’23-24 following an uncharacteristic miss in ’22-23.

Lucas Signoretti

• Only player scored more than 100 points during the 2022-2023 NOJHL regular season. That would be Nicolas Pigeon, who has since graduated from the Timmins Rock. And only one player scored 50 goals in ’22-23 — him being Pigeon’s line mate Brady Harroun, who has also graduated to the college hockey ranks. So, to the question: who are leading candidates to lead in the NOJHL in points and/or goals this season? At the very top of the Hockey News North list is 2004 birth year forward Lucas Signoretti. Playing in just 40 games for the Espanola Paper Kings in ’22-23, Signoretti lit it up in a big way with 39 goals, 40 assists, 79 points. Signoretti’s points per game average of 1.98 in ’22-23 was the best in the NOJHL, just ahead of the aforementioned Pigeon’s 1.84 mark. For good measure, the small but skilled and speedy Signoretti followed up his spectacular ’22-23 regular season with three goals, four assists, seven points as Espanola lost to the powerhouse Sudbury Cubs in five games in the opening round of the playoffs. It is worth noting that when Signoretti parted ways with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League early in the ’22-23 season that he had his choice of a multitude of junior A teams to play for — and he picked Espanola. Which certainly says a lot about the Paper Kings as a franchise under the leadership of president and head coach Jason Rapcewicz and general manager Marc Gagnon.

Tenzin Nyman

• Like most teams, reigning champion Timmins has undergone a major roster turnover from last season to this, mostly by way of graduation. Still, there are a legion of high ranking returnees who figure to form the foundation for further success in ’23-24. Key ones include ace goalie Patrick Boivin, blue line boss — and captain — Felix Cadieux-Cadette, hard working, dogged defender Tenzin Nyman and locally groomed forwards Harry Clark and Nolan Ring. Then there is head coach and general manager Brandon Perry. There are few — if any — in the junior A hockey game who can out think, out work or out prepare the hard driven, well structured Perry, who is clever, tactful and wise beyond his 34 years of youthful age.

• They have been perennial contenders for several seasons running from initial head coach Marc Lafleur to current bench boss Marc-Alain Begin. And expect nothing less than legitimate contention from the Hearst Lumberjacks over the course of this season. On the player front, there is assumption, belief and expectation that third year forward Mathieu Comeau could boom and really break out this season. A local product who will turn 18 this year, the still young Comeau has skated in 131 games, playoffs included, over two full seasons in Hearst and produced 39 goals, 65 assists, 104 points. Which is rather splendid and striking for a kid who first played in the NOJHL with Hearst a month before his 16th birthday.

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